Yemen’s secessionist Southern Movement is undergoing a radical transformation that threatens the country’s stability. But a military campaign against the movement would only further inflame its supporters and increase support for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. A political solution is required that addresses the unresolved problems from the country’s poorly-executed unification in the early 1990s.

Map: Yemen

Map of Yemen
Map of Yemen showing current governorate boundaries and former North/South boundary.

Key Conclusions:

  • The demands of the southern leaders were originally moderate calls for equality, but a severe response from Yemeni President Saleh (who used government media to create scandals about the movement’s leaders and arrested religious figures) pushed the movement to demand secession.
  • Al-Qaeda’s leader in Yemen, Nasser al-Wahayshi, has declared support for the Southern Movement, but Southern leaders have thus far rejected his endorsement.
  • The primary problem in the South is not links between al-Qaeda and the Southern Movement, but unrest fueled by widespread opposition to the government and the perception of economic exploitation by the military and security forces.  

Policy Recommendations:

  • Arab leadership. Arab countries should lead the push for Yemen’s government to negotiate with southerners, improve economic development, and begin national reconciliation. Western-backed initiatives will only increase mistrust of the central government.
  • Reconciliation. Yemen’s government and representatives of the Southern Movement should commence national reconciliation talks. The talks must include domestic political opponents, southern women, and exiled southern leaders and members of the business community.
  • Address root causes. Instead of a military crackdown on the Southern Movement, the government needs to reduce corruption, respect human rights, and allow political opponents to peacefully organize.
  • Presidential transition. Saleh’s presidential term ends in 2013. Stepping down peacefully, and refusing to install a member of his family in his place, would go a long way in convincing the Southern Movement to drop its plans for secession.

“The success of the political effort in the South will require steady, outside pressure and effective mediation, preferably by an Arab leader like Jordan’s late King Hussein, who tried to assist Yemenis in 1994,” writes Day. But “ultimately, the success of such an effort will depend on Yemeni leaders on all sides, and their willingness to tackle problems left unsolved since the 1990s.”